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Posted by Tony Ward on 30/11/2005
Dialysis. Photo: Tony Ward collection.

As I struggled to fight back the tears, Brahim asked once more if everything was okay. Exhausted and spent, I could only nod my head. We were at 3,900m on Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest mountain, attempting to beat my own record by carrying out the world’s highest dialysis exchange.

I only had a hundred metres to climb, but it might as well have been a thousand. There was nothing left, I had given everything to get to this point. Leaning over my ski poles gasping for every ounce of oxygen, my mind drifted back to six years earlier.

“Mr Ward we have your test results back and they show that you have a form of kidney disease known as IgA nethropathy”. As the consultant continued to explain the implications of this illness I stopped taking it all in, until he jolted me back to reality, “of course you will have to give up your life of mountaineering as it is unlikely that you will ever climb again.” The devastation was now total. Not only did I need to come to terms with a major illness, I would also be losing my job and a lifestyle I loved.

But just three weeks after being discharged from hospital with his words still ringing in my ears, I climbed the Old Man of Coniston. The whole journey took eight hours to complete, slow by usual standards perhaps, but it proved I could still climb a mountain. Six weeks later I climbed my first Munro, then came a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, requiring a night dialysing in the mountains.

In June the same year I married my partner Bridget. Instead of going to the Maldives or Mauritius as she’d hoped we headed to Switzerland with plans to climb the Matterhorn (well it does begin with an M). Our marriage survived, the Matterhorn was bagged, plus another three peaks over 4,000m. Then in 2002 after a failed transplant and other serious medical complications we attempted to climb Mont Blanc. Although I didn’t reach the summit, I did accidentally create a new world record with a dialysis exchange at 4,000m. It wasn’t easy. These climbs punished me brutally, and it took three or four months to recover from each one. Yet here I was again, in 2004, on Mount Toubkal pushing my body to a place that it really didn’t want to go.

Brahim and I had worked and climbed together for many years prior to my illness, and it had always been my intention to visit him again, but I’d been unsure about travelling to Morocco whilst on dialysis. But now, after a great deal of planning and preparation we were in the mountains together once again.

When attempting Toubkal most people summit and return to camp in around eight hours, but I would need two days. To conserve energy I completed the six-hour trek to base camp at 3,000m by mule. The plan was then to ascend to 3,600m, rest, then continue to a high camp set up by my support team. But we all know what happens to plans. As it turned out, I didn’t reach 3,600m until 3pm, completely exhausted and unable to go any further. We decided to spend the night there and try for an early start.

Strong winds and bitterly cold temperatures decided otherwise and we couldn’t leave until the warmth of the sun hit our camp. Disappointingly we had a pre-arranged cut-off time of 10.30am, which only allowed two hours or so to reach the summit at 4,150m. Carrying on seemed absolutely pointless. I was cold, tired and exhausted, and all I wanted was to turn around and go back down. I put the summit out of my mind and simply focused on getting to 4,000m - “pain is temporary, quitting is forever.”

The first hour went well, but as the cut-off time came and went I was still only at 3,850m. Knowing I didn’t want to give in, Jez and Brahim kept their distance and let me continue, absolutely shattered. Slowly I came out of my dreamlike state to the voice of Brahim asking if everything was okay. Once my breathing had returned to somewhere near normal I asked the guys for more time - against their better judgement they agreed.

As we covered the 25m to the skyline a small cairn identifying 4,000m came into view. At first I managed ten paces before resting over my ski poles, but this soon reduced to five. Then after 50m, one. But even at this glacial pace the cairn inched closer. Eventually it was five paces away - incredibly and against all odds we had done it. Our altimeter confirmed our altitude and at 4,050m I carried out the world’s highest dialysis exchange.

I may not have made the summit, but it was still a fantastic trip, spending time in the mountains with close friends. However I’ve no desire to endure that level of suffering and discomfort ever again. And I’ve promised Bridget that I’ll never climb another mountain at altitude whilst on dialysis. Mind you, I said that after Mont Blanc. n

Tony Ward, a freelance mountaineering instructor was diagnosed with end stage renal failure in 1998. Despite severe medical complications arising from a failed transplant he continued to find out what could be achieved as a mountaineer on dialysis. Tony was transplanted earlier this year with a kidney donated by his brother and plans to continue using mountaineering as a means of raising funds on behalf of kidney research. See www.tonywardadventures.com.

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